How on earth are you going to get through 3 full days of the bar exam without falling apart? If it’s your first time sitting for the bar, it’s impossible to predict how you are going to react to the mental task ahead. But, you can be well prepared by having a good routine in place that sets you up for success. I took the California bar exam twice, each time in Pasadena, thankfully passing the second one. My schedule was pretty much the same each time and I felt very assured and mentally prepared with each sitting. Here is my day-by-day routine of what I did from my first day of arrival to my final day of departure.
If you are staying in a nearby hotel (which I do recommend so that you don’t have the anxiety of getting to the test center on time each morning), I suggest you arrive Sunday to acclimatize yourself to the surroundings and get into your bar routine. You will also avoid the stress of worrying about “what if’s,” like… what if I miss my flight?…what if my flight is delayed?… what if my car breaks down? By having this one-day cushion, your mind will be more at ease.
For anyone interested, I stayed at the Hilton Pasadena the first time and the Sheraton Pasadena the second time. I highly recommend either hotel (get the bar exam group rate) but here are the pros and cons for each:
Pros – It’s practically connected to the Pasadena Convention Center, just walk outside the back door and you’re at the exam hall in less than a minute. Plus, you can ask for a mini-fridge for your room which for me was nice since I like to keep my own fresh fruit and beverages cold in the fridge. Wi-Fi is included in your hotel room rate.
Cons – Their restaurant food is not that great. I found the breakfast “ok” but not what I expected for this hotel.
Pros – Excellent food from their restaurant. My room service breakfast tasted great each morning. Plus, they have a Starbucks right in the lobby and a deli connected to the hotel. This came in handy for my lunch each bar exam day.
Cons – No mini-fridge available and you have to pay extra for Wi-Fi in your room. It’s a few blocks walk from the Pasadena Convention Center. (But I enjoyed the walk and I had great weather that July).
- If arriving before check-in time like I did, ask the front desk if they can have your room ready early. They may be able to accommodate you.
- If you have to wait more than 1 hour to check-in, let the front desk hold your bags and spring for lunch in the hotel dining room. Order something you really like – you deserve it!
- Once in your hotel room, unpack your belongings and group together your outfits on hangers to wear each day. (I planned exactly what I was going to wear each day in advance so I knew what to bring.)
- Be sure to have a sweater or long-sleeve jacket/shirt handy for the exam days. July can be hot but you may feel cold inside with the AC like I did. My warm sweater was a life-saver for being comfortable. (In February, the morning walk can be chilly)
- Review your subject checklists and approach sheets by writing them out during the evening.
- Get to bed early and set your alarm for the time you will be getting up the days of the exam.
- Take this day to do a thorough review of all the subjects by writing out the checklists and approaches. Do not bother with doing any MBE questions at this stage. If you haven’t mastered these yet, an extra day of multiple choice isn’t going to make much difference. But for essay writing you can gain a lot by going over key definitions and writing out the high level subject outlines.
- Take a stroll out for lunch and visit the location where you will be taking the exam. Figure out your strategy for getting there – i.e walking or riding, and know how long it will take you.
- Scope out places for getting lunch on exam days or plan what you can eat in your hotel room. If it’s July, there will be tons of students scrambling for lunch all at the same time. (February won’t be as crowded).
- I recommend you order breakfast room service the night before, especially if you are staying at a hotel where there are many bar exam applicants. Morning room service can get pretty hectic! I learned that advance orders are best.
- Order something with protein like eggs and whole wheat bread with peanut butter. Ask to add a banana. Or even better, find a local store or grocery nearby where you can buy some bananas to leave in your room.
- Get to bed early and be sure to have a double wake-up system in place. Ask the hotel to give you a wake up call and also set your own alarm.
Tuesday – Exam Day 1
- Room service for breakfast may be costly, but the peace of mind is worth it. I ordered it to arrive very early so that I could eat in two stages.
- I ordered the veggie omelette with whole wheat toast (I passed on the potatoes). Then after getting ready and just before I walked out the door, I ate my banana for an extra guarantee of sustenance to get me through the morning.
- Review your checklists and approach sheets for the essays while eating breakfast. You won’t have time to review all, so pick some subjects you think might be most important.
- Avoid having to leave your papers or bag in the exam center hall – don’t bring anything but the items you are allowed to take into the exam room in your clear plastic bag. You won’t have to worry about finding your stuff during the mad dash at lunch and the end of the day.
- Walk back to your hotel to have lunch ALONE. I avoided all contact with other students during the 3 days of the exam, just to protect my own sanity. The last thing I wanted was to be brought into a conversation of “did you write this, did you write that?” resulting in loosing my confidence about my ability to pass.
- While staying at the Sheraton I made tuna sandwiches for lunch with my own whole grain bread and packages of tuna that I brought with me in my suitcase, mixing the tuna with mayonnaise packs that I had been collecting from fast food restaurants before my trip. Yes, this may sound weird but it saved me having to scramble to wait in line ups with all the other students for lunch!
- While staying at the Hilton I bought lunch each day at the deli connected to the hotel. Seems to have been the best kept secret – not too many other students were there!
- While eating my lunch, I enjoyed the fresh air and view from my balcony, and I quickly wrote out the basic plot line and issues that I discussed for each of the 3 morning essays. (You will find this handy to have after it’s all over when you are thinking about what you wrote, trying to figure out how well you did. Believe me – you won’t remember a thing you wrote if you don’t do this).
- Because the next day is entirely devoted to MBE (multiple choice questions), I don’t recommend practicing these types of questions at this late stage. I think your time can be better spent reviewing your checklists and approaches, particularly for the essay subjects that have NOT yet been tested on the first day.
- Go to bed early and be sure to have your double alarm system in place for the next morning.
Wednesday – Exam Day 2
- MBE day – no need to bring your laptop! Just your clear plastic bag with pencils and erasers. No pens or highlighters – check what you cannot bring on this day (the proctor will review this during Monday’s instructions).
- Same morning, lunch and evening routine as Tuesday.
Thursday – Exam Day 3
- Another repeat of the Tuesday schedule for morning and lunch with one big exception:
Evening – Party time!
- Yes, you did it! I will never forget that exhilarating feeling at the end of exam day Thursday. I walked back to hotel with a big smile on my face, feeling so great that I got through each and every day without any disasters. I didn’t run out of time for any questions and I felt like I did my best. Even though I didn’t pass the first time (I was pretty close), I still felt good about it at the end of it all.
- Arrange in advance to have dinner and drinks with some of your law student friends after the bar exam is over. Pick a restaurant/bar, and tell whoever gets there first to grab a big enough table. It will be busy!
- Now you can talk about the bar exam all you want! I found that discussing the questions AFTER the exam, helped me to unwind and I actually enjoyed comparing strategies used.
- But a word of caution – don’t get distressed if you find that other students wrote about issues that you did not, or interpreted essays differently than you. They are not necessarily right! (Once you have settled down and are in a frame of mind to really examine what you wrote about – pull out your notes from each day after you wrote the essays. Compare this with your outlines to see what you may have missed. If you feel like you really did badly, you may want to begin studying again before the results come out.)
- If you have to check out on this day, there won’t be much you can do in the morning other than have a nice breakfast, maybe lounge around the pool, and pack up your things (you may be sleeping a bit late after the Thursday night partying!)
- If you were able to book your trip to stay this extra day like I did, you can enjoy some activities in town with some friends.
- For my second bar exam experience, my good friend and business partner, Angela Petrusha (BarIssues.com co-founder) came to Pasadena on Thursday afternoon to join us for a school alumni dinner. (Angela already passed the bar exam the year before). We spent all day Friday together with another law student having a wonderful time. It was definitely the highlight of my trip.
And there you have it. My day-by-day guide to experiencing the bar exam with the least stress possible. Do as much advance planning as you can so that you have an idea of what to expect and are not faced with any surprises. If possible, talk to other students who have taken the exam in your location.
I’m sure there are many other great places to take the California Bar Exam besides Pasadena, but if you have not yet picked your exam center, you may want to consider this city, even if it ‘s not close to where you live. You won’t need a rental car because everything is within walking distance. And if you have a friend who lives there like I did, hopefully they will be as good a tour guide after the exam as mine was.
Good luck on the bar exam!